The sight of George Clooney’s dapper form is almost enough to distract viewers of Up in the Air from its essentially conservative outlook. The movie has all the trappings of the Exploration of the Modern Predicament: the rootless man and the rootless woman, the detached career, the alienating urban environment, the even more alienating space of airport terminals and hotel rooms, the sex without commitment.
But the real tone of the movie is signaled right from the start by the chicly retro credit sequence. We’re in the twenty-first century—by way of the fifties.
Everything in Up in the Air tends towards marriage. That’s the movie’s prime law of physics: all bodies in motion tend to hope for married life. Some of that we expect. We expect that Anna Kendrick’s young trainee will voice the earnest rebuttal to Clooney’s soulless philosophy. We expect that Clooney’s life will be shown up for its emptiness. We expect him to have A Revelation that he wants more out of life. We even expect that there will be a twist involving his relationship with Vera Farmiga’s equally rootless and commitment-free Alex.
What we don’t expect (stop reading here if you don’t want to know) is that the surprise is not that the woman is just as much a player as the man. Jason Reitman is not going for a gender commentary here. Instead, he’s going for an affirmation that marriage is the correct state in which people should live. That’s what Kendrick’s Natalie wants, that’s what Alex has (it’s not another man in her bed, but the even more scandalous husband in the kitchen that provides the movie’s final frisson), and that’s what Clooney’s stranded Ryan Bingham wants.
In the end, though, Up in the Air is cleverly just what its title says. In the final sequence, we see Clooney standing in front of a giant departures board. We know from an earlier scene between him and Farmiga that the board is where you go when you can choose to go anywhere in the world. You just take your frequent flier miles and pick a city. Now Clooney stands with the names of cities behind him and an exit sign directly above his head. Off he goes. But it’s a Sartrian huis clos. There’s really no way out.